Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder


By Judd Winick, Joshua Middleton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0923-0 (TPB)

At their most impressive, superhero comics combine all the gravitas of mythology with all the sheer child-like fun and exuberance of a first rollercoaster ride. A perfect example of this is a 4-issue miniseries from November – February of 2006 collected as Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder.

One of the most venerated and loved characters in American comics, (the original) Captain Marvel was created by Bill Parker and Charles Clarence Beck as part of the wave of opportunistic creativity that followed the successful launch of Superman in 1938. Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett character moved solidly and steadily into the area of light entertainment and even comedy, whilst as the 1940s progressed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action and drama.

At the height of his popularity the World’s Mightiest Mortal outsold the Man of Steel by a wide margin (even published twice monthly), but as the Furious Forties closed tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing. They settled a long-running copyright infringement case instigated by DC/National in 1940 and the Big Red Cheese vanished – as did so many superheroes – becoming little more than a fond memory for older fans.

As America lived through another superhero boom-and-bust from 1956-1968, the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and a wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collector/fans and not casual or impulse buys. DC Comics needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places.

After the settlement with Fawcett in 1953 they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and Family, and even though the name itself had been taken up by Marvel Comics (via a circuitous and quirky robotic character published by Carl Burgos and M.F. Publications in 1967) decided to tap into that discriminating older, nostalgia-fuelled fan-base, even as the entire entertainment world began looking back in time for fresh entertainments such as The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie (or even Bonnie and Clyde)…

In 1973, riding that burgeoning wave of nostalgia, DC brought back the entire beloved cast of the Captain Marvel strips: restored to their own kinder, weirder universe. To circumvent an intellectual property clash, they entitled the new comic book Shazam!; the trigger phrase used by a huge family of Marvels to transform to and from mortal form and a word that had already entered the American language due to the success of the franchise the first time around.

You know what comics fans are like: they had been arguing for decades – and still do – over who was best (for which read “who would win if they fought?”) out of Superman or Captain Marvel. Thus, though excised from the regular DCU and stuck on a parallel universe, the old commercial rivals met and clashed a number of times, but until the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths subsumed all those myriad worlds into one overarching continuity, the most powerful heroes in existence maintained the status of “equal but separate”.

In that new reality everything happened in one cosmos and Captain Marvel was fully rebooted and integrated. The basics remained untouched: homeless orphan and good kid Billy Batson is selected by an ancient wizard to be given the powers of six gods and heroes to battle injustice. Bestowed with the ability to transform from scrawny precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, the idealistic lad can now right all wrongs as “the World’s Mightiest Mortal!”

After twenty years in this iteration, Captain Marvel’s early days were re-explored in this canny, big-hearted thriller which reveals the details of the first shared case of paragons of power.

Written by Judd Winick and illustrated by Joshua Middleton in a painterly style gloriously reminiscent of the old Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons, this magical treat is chronologically set just after Superman: Man of Steel volume 1 and The Power of Shazam! original graphic novel, and opens with ‘A Face in the Crowd’ as a new hero begins saving lives in West Coast metropolitan colossus Fawcett City, whilst a continent eastwards in Metropolis, Superman stumbles onto a museum robbery and is surprisingly beaten by thieves employing magic. The robbers belong to a cult – the Temple of Bagdan – and are on a nationwide spree to collect ancient Russian relics for some sinister master-plan…

In Fawcett, Marvel destroys giant robots attacking a new solar powered construction site designed by Doctor Bruce Gordon, unexpectedly inspiring the enmity of billionaire industrialist Thaddeus Sivana. Although the owner of the Solar Center project, Sivana has huge petrochemical interests and only intended his eco-friendly enterprise as a tax shelter. He certainly has no intention of supplying cheap, clean energy to the proles of “his” city…

In a makeshift shelter, homeless Billy Batson talks his day over with Scoot Cooper, another hard-luck kid and the only person who knows his secret, even as Sivana “negotiates” with his hated East Coast rival Lex Luthor. The arrogant Metropolis financier has experience with super-powered meddlers and resources to combat their interference. It’s time to make a deal with a devil…

Later when the Bagdan cultists raid Fawcett’s McKeon History Museum, Marvel is waiting for them but is also overmatched by the magical Mallus Trolls employed by the thieves. At least until Superman shows up…

The team-up explodes into action in ‘Odd Couples’ with the heroes battling together, discovering their similarities and major differences even as, in Metropolis, Luthor sells Sivana the answer to all his superhero problems: an exemplary operative dubbed Spec

The cultists have again escaped however, and are in the final stage of their plan. Having secured the mystic paraphernalia to summon consummate evil they then force disturbed kidnap victim Timothy Barnes to become host to six infernal fiends. Sabbac is the antithesis of Shazam’s agent: a supernatural super-being sponsored by devil-lords Satan, Aym, Belial, Beeelzebub, Asmodeus and Createis in the way the ancient gods and heroes empower Captain Marvel, and now he is free to wreak havoc and destruction upon the world…

To make matters worse, at that very moment Bruce Gordon succumbs to his own twilight curse at the Solar Centre as a lunar eclipse allows the diabolical Spirit of Vengeance to escape from his fleshy prison…

‘Titans’ finds Captain Marvel furious battling his dark counterpart as Superman struggles against not only evil spirit Eclipso but also his possessed army of innocents enslaved by the dark destroyer’s black diamond. When Sivana secretly funded the cultists, he intended their tool to simply destroy Gordon and his power plant, but now events have spiralled beyond anyone’s control. Even as the hated heroes inadvertently fix both of Sivana’s awry schemes, Spec is hunting through Fawcett. Soon his astounding abilities have ferreted out Billy Batson’s secret and arranged a permanent solution…

The drama roars to a terrific conclusion in ‘Men and Boys! Gods and Thunder!’ as a paramilitary hit squad attempts to gun down the merely human Billy but only hits his best friend instead, leaving Sivana to face the wrath of a lonely, bitter 10-year old boy, amok and enraged with righteous fury in the body of one of the most powerful creatures in the universe…

In the awesome aftermath, Superman decides to deal with the shell-shocked Marvel in a way that will change both of their lives forever…

Still readily available in trade paperback and digital form – and sporting such extras as a roughs and sketches, cover process guide and cover gallery – this is a big, bold, old fashioned comicbook romp full of big fights, dastardly villains, giant monsters, big robots and lasting camaraderie that will delight all lovers of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction, and whilst not a breakthrough classic like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, is an equally mythic retelling of superhero mythology which ranks amongst the very best of the genre.

They should make a movie out of it…
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Aquaman: The Search for Mera Deluxe Edition


By Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8522-7 (HB)

Aquaman was one of a handful of costumed adventurers to survive the superhero collapse at the end of the Golden Age: a rather nondescript and genial guy who solved maritime crimes and mysteries when not rescuing fish and people from sub-sea disasters. He was created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris in the wake of and in response to Timely Comics’ Sub-Mariner, debuting in More Fun Comics #73 (November 1941).

Strictly a second stringer for most of his career, he nevertheless continued on beyond many stronger features; illustrated by Norris, Louis Cazaneuve, Charles Paris, and latterly Ramona Fradon who drew every adventure until 1960.

When Showcase #4 rekindled the public’s taste for costumed crimefighters with the advent of a new Flash in 1956, National/DC updated its small band of superhero survivors, especially Green Arrow and the Sea King. As the sixties unfolded, Aquaman was appearing as a back-up feature in Detective and World’s Finest Comics. Following a team up with Hawkman in Brave and the Bold # 51 and a try-out run in Showcase #30-33, Aquaman made his big jump. After two decades of continuous adventuring, the marine marvel finally got his own comicbook (cover-dated January/February 1962).

Now with his own title and soon a to be featured in the popular, groundbreaking cartoon show Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, the Finned Fury seemed destined for super-stardom, but despite increasingly bold and innovative tales his title was cancelled as the decade closed. Towards the end, outrageously outlandish yarns gave way to grittily hard-edged epics steered by revolutionary editor Dick Giordano and hot new talents Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo …

This compelling compilation – collecting material from Aquaman volume 1 #40-48 (July/August 1968 to November/December 1969) – is available in hardback and digital formats, offering a potent and timeless drama that changed perceptions of the amiable aquatic avenger forever…

In Aquaman #18, (December 1964 and not included here) the King of Atlantis met extradimensional princess Mera, who became ‘The Wife of Aquaman’ in one of the first superhero weddings of the Silver Age. Talk about instant responsibilities…

A few years later scripter Steve Skeates and new illustrator Jim Aparo began an epic extended tale as the Sea Lord abandoned all kingly duties to hunt for his beloved after she is abducted from his very arms.

The quest began in ‘Sorcerers of the Sea’ with her being brutally whisked away, leaving Aquaman and Aqualad to voyage to strange, distant undersea realms in search of her. In the interim, royal heir Aquababy is left in the care of loyal comrade Aquagirl (her actual name was Tula) while the kingdom devolves to the ministrations of top advisor Narkran. Their first encounter is with a village of mystics whose queen is a doppelganger of missing Mera. Barely escaping, Aquaman’s resources are further taxed when his faithful sidekick is gravely wounded, but, raging and impatient, the Sea King cannot wait for him to heal…

His only clue is the distinctive jewellery one of his assailants wore and ‘The Trail of the Ring’ eventually leads to a deep-sea realm of barbarians known as Maarzons. To reach them, though, Aquaman has to traverse unexplored depths, facing monsters with telepathic powers similar to his own and escape a super civilised micro-culture with some repellent ideas on the price of survival…

On finally reaching Maarzon country, Aquaman savagely confronts warlike primitives who somehow worship his greatest enemy and is forced to ask ‘Is This My Foe?’, before realising he is being played for a fool. Meanwhile, in Atlantis Aqualad has taken a turn for the worst and Tula gets the first inkling that Narkran might not be completely stable. It’s a situation that will soon be reflected throughout the domed city-state…

Despite physical injuries and mental confusion, Aqualad absconds from hospital in Atlantis to aid his friend’s search, only to be captured and forcibly turned into a monster-slayer by a dying subsea race in ‘To Win is to Lose!’ Aquaman has since encountered another bizarre race and a helpful surface-man Phil Darson. The explorer provides a powerful clue that changes everything and sends the Sea King swimming for the sunlight lands above…

And in Atlantis, shattering quakes presage a different kind of instability as the drowned realm begins shifting upwards too…

The mystery begins to resolve in ‘Underworld Reward!’ as Aquaman exposes American gangsters planning a big coup that somehow involves him and Mera. Sadly, that only leads to a bounty landing squarely on his head and every rat in the city gunning for him, before ‘Underworld Reward! Part 2’ sees a partial resolution and fraught reunion when the king and queen explosively meet up and crush the thugs.

Embellished by Frank Giacoia (as “An Inker”) ‘The Explanation!’ fills in the blanks on a bizarre and complex scheme that highlights high level treachery in Atlantis and collusion between the subsea corridors of power and the back alleys of American crimelords…

Dash back home, Aquaman and Mera fortuitously save embattled Aqualad en route as ‘Come the Revolution’ finds Aquagirl and the city’s youth taking on the usurpers until the Royal Family return in climactic earth-shaking conclusion ‘A Kingdom to Re-Build!’

Also boasting a telling Foreword from latterday scripter Dan Abnett and a full cover gallery from Nick Cardy – some of his best ever work – this bombastic thriller forever ended the genteel, anodyne days of the B-lister Aquaman: reforging the hero into a passionate, questioning, forceful champion far more in keeping with the turbulent times.

What this collection proves is that his past adventures are all worthy of far more attention than they’ve received of late, and even though it’s probably just the commercial fallout of his movie incarnation, comics readers get to benefit from the renewed exposure and unearthed gems of aquatic adventure.

It is a total joy to find just how readable they still are. With tumultuous sea-changes always in store for Aquaman, the comics industry and America itself, this tasty testament to the inestimable value of a good bad-guy is a true delight for fans of all ages and vintage.
© 1968, 1969, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Power of SHAZAM!


By Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-085-7 (HB) 978-1-56389-153-3 (TPB)

Since DC acquired the rights to the Golden Age Captain Marvel (as published by Fawcett from 1940-1953) there have been many enjoyable and effective treatments of the characters. One of the very best which succeeded in to capturing the exuberance and charm of the originals – albeit layered with a potent veneer of modern menace – was Jerry Ordway’s 1994 re-imagining of the concept, based as much on the strengths of the 1940s movie serial as the forceful fun comics of Bill Parker, Otto Binder, C.C. Beck and their close cohort of creative stalwarts…

In Egypt, archaeologists Charles Batson and his wife Marilyn lead the prestigious Sivana Expedition in a search for knowledge and antiquities. That doesn’t fit with the instructions given to the sponsor’s ruthless fixer and overseer Theo Adam, who has his own instructions regarding certain treasures. When they uncover an unknown tomb belonging to an utterly unknown dignitary named “Shazam”, tensions boil over and murder occurs.

The historians had left their son in America with Charles’ brother, but taken their toddler Mary with them. After the bloodshed ends, both she and Adam have vanished without trace…

Some Years Later…

Billy Batson is a little boy living on the streets of ultra-modern art deco Fawcett City, USA. His parents had left him with his uncle Ebenezer when they went away. They never returned and he was thrown out as his uncle stole his inheritance. No one knows where his baby sister is…

Sleeping in a storm drain, selling newspapers for cash, the indomitable kid is pretty street-savvy, but when a mysterious shadowy stranger who seems comfortingly familiar bids him follow into an eerie subway, Billy just somehow knows it’s okay to comply.

When he meets the wizard Shazam and gains the powers of the ancient Gods and Heroes he knows he has the opportunity to make things right at last. But he isn’t aware of just what depths of evil corporate vulture Thaddeus Sivana is capable, nor the role that Black Adam played in the fate of his parents…

This superb and mesmerising retelling was an original graphic novel (available now in Hardback, Trade Paperback and in digital editions) that led to the most successful comic-book revival the original Captain Marvel has yet experienced. The characters refitted in that series are potently realistic but the stories offer a young voice and sensibility.

Moreover, the pulp adventure atmosphere conjured up by Ordway in conjunction with his sumptuous art and spectacular design make for a captivating experience, and the artist’s writing has never been more approachable and beguiling. This is a wonderful book for fans of adventure as well as “costumed drama” addicts and well worth pursuing in light of the movie release.
© 1994 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs


By Ed Brubaker, Doug Mahnke, Patrick Zircher & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1622-1 (HB) 978-1-4012-1626-9 (TMB)

This March saw the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut in Detective Comics #27. About one year later his inescapable primal nemesis debuted in Batman #1 (cover-dated “Spring” and released on April 25th, 1940. Thus, I’m selfishly pleasing myself and getting my patronising geek on by indulging in a few fond looks back and sharing some books you might like to try for yourselves. Here’s one featuring a superb brace of creative collaborations revelling in the sheer power the Dark Knight has exerted over the decades, and one that’s happily now available in digital formats as well as in a good old-fashioned Hardcover and Trade Paperback tomes…

Grittily devious writer Ed Brubaker teamed with artist Doug Mahnke, colourist David Baron and letterer Rob Leigh treated us to a rather gripping treatment based on the original 1940s debut tales (with a tip of the hat to the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers tales of the early seventies), in the form of an impressive prestige one-shot released in February 2005.

The title – and apparently the original inspiration for the Clown Prince of Crime himself – comes from Paul Leni’s seminal 1928 film classic starring Conrad Veidt in the title role. The plot concerns the actions of innocent Gwynplaine who had a permanent smile carved into his face by the King as a punishment for his father’s crimes…

Set not long after the events of Batman: Year One, The Man Who Laughs sees Police Captain Jim Gordon recognise that Gotham City has been changed forever when an outlandish and macabre serial killer goes on a very public, attention-seeking murder spree. Even his secret ally and vigilante outlaw The Batman is daunted by the sheer scale and audacity of the chalk-faced lunatic who seems utterly unstoppable and capable of anything…

The initial ghastly, gore-drenched clash of wills is a trip into hell for all concerned, but even with the Joker behind bars, the prognosis for the future seems grim beyond all reckoning…

The remainder of this book collects a 3-part adventure from Detective Comics #784-786 (September-November 2003). Here Brubaker scripts a generational serial-killer mystery steeped in the continuity of DC’s Golden Age guest-starring the original Green Lantern. Radio tycoon Alan Scott was Gotham City’s superhero-in-residence in the 1940s and early 1950s before mysteriously dropping out of sight as the “Red-baiting”, “Commie-hunting” decade unfolded…

Illustrated by Patrick Zircher, Aaron Sowd & Steve Bird, with hues by Jason Wright & letters by Todd Klein, ‘Made of Wood’ skips to contemporary times as Batman hunts a prolific serial killer who originally terrorised the populace in 1948. This maniac left a nasty signature message carved into his victims way back when and even assassinated the then-Mayor before simply disappearing. Now he’s apparently back to add to his tally

Matters are further complicated when a guilt-plagued and exceedingly short-tempered Green Lantern returns to action, determined to finally close the case he fumbled nearly 50 years previously…

Brubaker is an excellent writer at the peak of his abilities here providing tension and catharsis in equal measure and the art on both stories is effective and compelling. This is one of the better collections in the canon of the Dark Knight and a great treat for any fan or casual browser.
© 2003, 2005, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years


By Bill Parker, Otto Binder, Elliot S. Maggin, Denny O’Neil, E. Nelson Bridwell, Roy Thomas, Paul Kupperberg, Alan Grant, Jerry Ordway, Joe Kelly, David Goyer, Geoff Johns, Jeff Smith, C.C. Beck, Marc Swayze, Mac Raboy, Pete Costanza, Chad Grothkopf, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Don Newton, Rich Buckler, Barry Kitson, Peter Krause, Duncan Rouleau, Leonard Kirk, Gary Frank & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5538-1 (HB)

At their most impressive, superhero comics combine the gravitas of mythology with all the sheer child-like fun and exuberance of a first rollercoaster ride. A perfect example of this is the original happy-go-lucky hero we can’t call Captain Marvel anymore.

First seen in the February 1940 issue of Whiz Comics (#2 – there was no #1) and cashing in on the comicbook sales phenomenon of Superman, the big red riot eventually won his name after narrowly missing being Captain Flash and Captain Thunder. He was the brainchild of Bill Parker and Charles Clarence Beck. Originally dispensing the same sort of summary rough justice as his contemporaries, the character soon distanced himself from the pack – Man of Steel included – by an increasingly light, surreal and comedic touch, which made him the best-selling comics character in America.

Billy’s alter ego could beat everybody but copyright lawyers; during his years of enforced inactivity the trademarked name passed to a number of other publishers before settling at Marvel Comics and they are never, never, never letting go. You can check out and compare their cinematic blockbuster version with the DC Extended Universe’s Shazam! flick too…

Publishing house Fawcett had first gained prominence through an immensely well-received magazine for WWI veterans entitled Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, before branching out into books and general interest magazines. Their most successful publication – at least until the Good Captain hit his stride – was the ubiquitous boy’s building bible Mechanix Illustrated and, as the comicbook decade unfolded, the scientific and engineering discipline and “can-do” demeanour underpinning MI suffused and informed both the art and plots of the Marvel Family titles.

As previously stated, the big guy was created by writer/editor Bill Parker and brilliant young artist Charles Clarence Beck who, with his assistant Pete Costanza, handled most of the art on the series throughout its stellar run. Other writers included William Woolfolk, Rod Reed, Ed “France” Herron, Joe Simon, Joe Millard, Manley Wade Wellman and the wonderfully prolific Otto Binder.

Before eventually evolving his own affable personality, the Captain was a serious, bluff and rather characterless powerhouse whilst his junior alter ego was the true star: a Horatio Alger archetype of impoverished, boldly self-reliant and resourceful youth overcoming impossible odds through gumption, grit and sheer determination…

Collecting in a big bold hardback trade paperback (and assorted digital formats) Whiz Comics #2, 21, Captain Marvel Adventures #18, 38, 39, 137, 148, Captain Marvel Jr. #12, Marvel Family #1, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny #6, Shazam! #1, 29, Superman #176, World’s Finest Comics #275, DC Comics Presents #49, L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘91 #31, The Power of Shazam! #1, 2, 33, Action Comics #768, JSA #48, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil #2, Justice League #21 and The Multiversity: Thunderworld #1 this is a magnificent primer of key moments and triumphs for a hero to whom change is everything…

The action opens in the Golden Age as Part I 1940-1953: The Big Red Cheese offers an abridged version of writer and historian Richard A. Lupoff’s 1992 Introduction to the Shazam Archives volume #1: a context-setting appreciation and appraisal covering the facts of his creation and his impact, after which Whiz Comics #2, (February 1940) provides our glimpse of the boy hero…

Drawn in a style reminiscent of early Hergé, ‘Introducing Captain Marvel’ sees homeless orphan Billy Batson lured into an abandoned subway tunnel to a meeting with millennia-old wizard Shazam. At the end of a long, long life fighting evil, the white-bearded figure grants the lad the power of six gods and heroes (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) and urges him to carry on the good fight. In thirteen delightfully clean and simple pages crafted by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck, Billy gets his powers, has his secret origin revealed (he’s heir to a fortune embezzled by his crooked uncle Ebenezer), wins a job as a roaming radio reporter for Amalgamated Broadcasting on Station WHIZ, and defeats the mad scheme of Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana who is holding the airwaves of America hostage. Defeating the demonic mad scientist sets a pattern that would captivate readers for the next 14 years…

Next, from Whiz Comics #21 ‘The Vengeful Four’ (September 5th 1941 – fortnightly, remember?) is an uncredited script limned by Beck wherein Sivana gathers three other villains to attack the hero in his youthful identity. What luck then that three other kids named Billy Batson are in town and that the magic of Shazam apparently extends to them…

Fat Billy, Tall Billy and Hill Billy took to trouncing thugs in a trice and, as the Three Lieutenant Marvels, would become frequent guest stars in years to come…

Billy soon found a companion in peril when Fascist überman Captain Nazi almost murders newsboy Freddie Freeman. Guilt-plagued Billy brings the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saves his life by granting him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Physically cured – except for a permanently maimed leg – there is a secondary effect: whenever he utters the phrase “Captain Marvel” Freeman transforms into a super-powered, invulnerable version of his mortal self…

That origin isn’t included here but does lead into the debut of Billy’s long-lost twin sister. Cover-dated December 11th 1942, Captain Marvel Adventures #18 cover features ‘Captain Marvel Introduces Mary Marvel’ (by Otto Binder, Marc Swayze & Mac Raboy) as radio contest competitor Mary Bromfield – a wealthy (adopted) heiress – is kidnapped. While saving her, Billy and Freddie uncover the family connection and Mary discovers that shouting “Shazam!” has a remarkable effect upon her too…

While the adult Captain Marvel was having increasingly light-hearted adventures, Freddie’s adventures in Master Comics and Captain Marvel Jr. were dark and dramatic: illustrated with potent, dynamic verve and grace by one of the most gifted draughtsmen of the era. A typical magnificent example features here as Captain Marvel Jr. #12, (October 1943, by Binder & Mac Raboy) provides the boy hero with a brutal arctic rematch against Captain Nazi in ‘Baffin Land’

Fawcett in full bloom was a true publishing innovator and marketing dynamo – now regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales-tactics, and storytelling innovations we all take for granted today were invented by their creative folk. Fawcett was responsible for creating crossover-events and also devised a truly unforgettable villain as part of a two-year long continued story!

The “Monster Society of Evil” began in March 1943’s Captain Marvel Adventures #22, and blazed away until ending with issue #46 (May 1945). The alien tyrant in charge was a malevolent worm from Venus dubbed Mr. Mind. Included here are two chapters – #17 and 18 from Captain Marvel Adventures #38 & 39 September and October 1944. Crafted by Binder & Beck, ‘Mr. Mind’s Movie Madness’ and ‘Peril Behind the Camera’ pits Billy and his older self against the utterly vile ubi vermis (that’s Latin for worm, science fans) during the making of the world’s worst monster movie…

‘The Mighty Marvels Join Forces’ (December 1945 by Binder, Beck & Pete Costanza) finds Billy, Mary and Freddie battling the depraved and corrupted Black Adam, who was old Shazam’s first gods-empowered champion 5000 years ago in the lead tale from team-title Marvel Family #1 (December 1945).

Superheroes began to fall from popularity as WWII ended and every publisher began searching other genres. Fawcett had already applied their winning formula to the all-ages cartoon critters market with Fawcett’s Funny Animals #1 (December 1942), which featured a lop-eared costumed crusader. Hoppy the Marvel Bunny (by Chad Grothkopf) got his own title as hostilities died down, and from #6 (November1946) comes ‘Phantom of the Forest’ as the mighty rabbit exposes supposed ghosts terrorising woodland folk…

The post-war years were simply magical times, with the creative crew at the top of their game. Captain Marvel Adventures #137 (October 1952) provides ‘King Kull and the Seven Sins’ by Binder, Beck wherein a beast-king from a pre-human civilisation frees the embodiments of Man’s greatest enemies from Shazam’s custody to plague the planet. These are wholesome tales for the entire family, however, so don’t worry – “Lust” has become “Injustice” and “Wrath” is “Hatred”, here…

The last yarn is from the Good Captain’s final year of Golden Age publication: a year that generated some of the best tales in the entire run, represented here by the wonderfully surreal ‘Captain Marvel Battles the World’ from Captain Marvel Adventures #148 (September 1952, by Binder and Beck) wherein Earth decides it has had enough of humanity mistreating it and tries to wipe out life and start again…

DC, in their original identity of National Periodical Publications, had filed suit against Fawcett for copyright infringement as soon as Whiz Comics #2 was released, and the companies had slugged it out ever since. In 1953, with sales of superhero comics decimated by changing tastes, Captain Marvel’s publishers decided to capitulate. They settled and the “Big Red Cheese” vanished – like so many other superheroes – becoming no more than a fond memory for older fans…

In Britain, where an English reprint line had run for many years, creator/publisher Mick Anglo had an avid audience and no product, and so swiftly transformed Captain Marvel into the atomic age hero Marvelman, continuing to thrill readers into the early 1960s.

DC eventually acquired all rights, titles and properties to the Captain Marvel characters. Beck returned to commercial and magazine illustration, while Binder & Schaffenberger joined the victorious opposition, becoming key Superman creators of the next few decades….

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel was an international franchise across the world. However, tastes and the decade changed, and the mighty marvel faded away. Time passed, other companies and heroes were created and also failed, as America lived through another superhero boom-and-bust. We call it the Silver Age now…

The Bronze Age of the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and a wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collector/fans and not casual or impulse buys. We rejoin our hero with the new decade fully founded as Part II 1973-1993: Cancellation and Revival sees his glorious return…

National Periodicals – rebranded as DC Comics – needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places. After 1953’s settlement with Fawcett, they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and Family, and even though the name itself had been taken up by Marvel Comics (via a circuitous and quirky robotic character published by Carl Burgos and M.F. Publications in 1967), DC decided to tap into that discriminating older fanbase.

In 1973, DC turned to the Good Captain to see if his unique charm could work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns. Riding a wave of mass-media and movie nostalgia, they revived the entire beloved Captain Marvel cast in their own kinder, weirder universe.

To circumvent the intellectual property clash, they entitled the new comic book Shazam! (‘With One Magic Word…’) the trigger phrase used by the majority of Marvels to transform to and from mortal form and a word that had already entered the American language due to the success of the franchise the first time around.

Recruiting the top talent available, the company tapped editor Julie Schwartz – who had a few notable successes with hero revivals – to steer the project. He teamed top scripter Denny O’Neil with original artist C.C. Beck for the initial story…

All this is succinctly covered in E. Nelson Bridwell’s essay (originally published in 1978’s All-New Collectors Edition #C-58) which leads off this eclectic second section…

Strangely positioned before that debut, however, comes Superman #176 (June 1974): Elliot S. Maggin, Curt Swan & Bob Oksner’s ‘Make Way for Captain Thunder!’ The sales and fan rivalry between fans of the Man of Steel and Big Red Cheese (Sivana’s pet name for his stout-hearted nemesis) had endured for decades, and Schwartz took full advantage by having the two finally – if notionally – meet, courtesy of magical trans-dimensional jiggery-pokery in a titanic tussle to delight 10-year-olds of all ages.

You will recall, I’m sure, that Captain Thunder was one of the options considered in 1940 before Fawcett went with the Marvel name…

Finally, then comes Shazam! #1 (February 1973)… ‘In the Beginning’ recounts, in grand old self-referential style, the classic origin whilst ‘The World’s Wickedest Plan’ relates how the Captain, his super-powered family and all the supporting cast (there’s a very useful seating chart-cum-biography page provided for your perusal) had been trapped in a timeless state for 20 years by the invidious Sivana Family who had subsequently been trapped in their own Suspendium device too.

Two decades later, they are all freed, baddies included, to restart their lives and resume their feuds.

Beck was profoundly unhappy with the quality of stories he was given to draw and soon left the series. One of his assistants and stable-mates from the Fawcett days had been a Superman Family mainstay for decades and smoothly fitted into the vacated lead-artist position. Kurt Schaffenberger was delighted to again be drawing one of his all-time favourite assignments again, and his shining run is represented here by Shazam! #29 (June 1977), as ‘Ibac meets Aunt Minerva’ (Bridwell, Schaffenberger & Vince Colletta. Set in Buffalo, New York and at Niagara Falls, it features a comedic battle of the sexes that was heavy on the hitting. Although the series was not a soaring success, it had spawned a hit kids TV show, introducing the Big Red Cheese to a new generation of viewers…

When the title was cancelled, the Shazam Family began appearing in anthology titles such as World’s Finest Comics with the scent gradually shifting from whimsy to harder-edged contemporary superhero stories. Here WF #275 (January 1982) supplies ‘The Snatching of Billy Batson’ by Bridwell, Don Newton & Dan Adkins; a stirring crime thriller mystery with Freddie taking the lead role…

Team-up title DC Comics Presents #49 (September 1982) then features ‘Superman and Shazam’ (Roy Thomas, Paul Kupperberg, Rich Buckler & John Calnan) which sees the immortal wizard enlist the Action Ace’s assistance to create a Captain Marvel for Earth-1. It does not go well after Black Adam interferes…

Now fully part of the DC universe, Captain Marvel popped up everywhere. He was even a long-suffering straight man in Justice League International for a while, and here (from L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘91 #31, September 1991) Alan Grant & Barry Kitson concoct a wickedly funny slugfest as the big red boy scout tries to reason with drunk and hostile super-lout Lobo in ‘Where Dreams End’

After a number of ill-received reinventions of the Shazam! concept and franchise – revised over and over again to seem relevant to a far darker, more hopeless and uncompromising world and readership – in 1994 a fresh new treatment by Jerry Ordway revitalised the heroic legend; offering a thoroughly modern but spiritually pure reboot that finally held the interest of modern readers.

Following Ordway’s introduction to Part III 1994-2010: The World’s Mightiest Mortal, a too-brief selection of those tales begins with ‘Things Change’ and ‘The Arson Fiend’ (by scripter Ordway, Peter Krause & Mike Manley from The Power of Shazam! #1 & 2, March and April 1995).

The monthly series had resulted from an original graphic novel (which I’ll be covering imminently as it’s not here) which transplanted Billy to Fawcett City in the DC Universe and enticingly added all the old plot points the readership loved: abandoned street kid, lost sister, talking tigers, and manic villains such as Sivana and Black Adam…

In the initial yarn Billy confronts his evil, embezzling uncle Ebenezer just as a lethal supernatural pyromaniac sets the Batson mansion ablaze. To make things worse, old Shazam has just cut off his rebellious protégé from the wellspring of his superpowers…

The series balanced superb Fights ‘n’ Tights clashes with potent emotional tension, and issue #33 (December 1997, by Ordway, Krause & Dick Giordano) offers a remarkable human-interest tale with ‘Yeah – This is a Face Only a Mother Could Love’: a powerful, poignant yet ultimately uplifting treatment of intolerance and the collateral damage of superhero encounters where Billy tries to help a school-friend hideously scarred by the Arson Fiend. It’s possibly the best-executed and least known story in the book…

Superman and Captain meet again in Action Comics #768, (August 2000 by Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau & Jaimie Mendoza) as ‘O Captain, My Captain’ sees a goddess-controlled Marvel Family attack the Man of Tomorrow in a fun-filled romp after which JSA #48 (July 2003) provides ‘Enlightenment’ courtesy of David Goyer, Geoff Johns, Leonard Kirk & Keith Champagne.

Extracted from extended epic ‘Princes of Darkness’, this sidebar yarn finds Billy deprived of his adult alter ego, and battling to survive beside teen hero Star Girl as mystic night closes over Earth.

A true return to greatness came in 2007 when Jeff Smith rebooted the magic in Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil. You can find the entire saga recently reviewed here, represented in this titanic tome by issues #2’s ‘NZIB GZPVH GSV XZPV! [Mary Takes the Cake!]’

Bringing us almost up to date, final chapter Part IV 2011 and Beyond: The New 52 focuses on the latest reboot which grew out of a new Justice League configuration.

Set as a series-within-a-series (in issues #7-11, #0 and #14-17) and again turning to a far harder-edged street kid persona ‘Shazam!’ was reimagined by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank and in Justice League #21 (August 2013) where the confused kid finds his Marvel Family and earns his hero stripes in final battle with murderous Black Adam…

Rounded out with stunning covers by Beck, Costanza, Mac Raboy, Chad Grothkopf, Nick Cardy, Murphy Anderson, Schaffenberger, Rich Buckler & Dick Giordano, Dan Brereton, Jerry Ordway, Duncan Rouleau & Lary Stucker, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino, Jeff Smith & Gary Frank, this is a glorious tribute to a truly mercurial comics champion.

The original Captain Marvel is a genuine icon of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. This stunning flag-of-convenience collection only scratches the surface of the canon of delights produced over the years, but is still a perfect introduction to the world of those ever-changing comics charm and one that will appeal to readers of any age and temperament, especially after a few hours in a darkened movie theatre…
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1952, 1973, 1974, 1977, 1982, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2013, 2014, 2015, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo volume 2


By Jim Aparo with Bob Haney, Cary Burkett, Archie Goodwin & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4296-1 (HB)

After periods as a historical adventure and try-out vehicle, The Brave and the Bold won critical as well as commercial acclaim through old-fashioned team-ups. Pairing regular writer Bob Haney with the best artists available, a succession of DC stars joined forces before the comicbook hit its winning formula.

The said format – featuring media superstar Batman with other rotating, luminaries of the DC universe in complete stand-alone stories – paid big dividends, especially after the feature finally found a permanent artist to follow a variety of illustrators including Ramona Fradon, Neal Adams, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Irv Novick, Nick Cardy, Bob Brown and others…

At that time editors favoured regular – if not permanent – creative teams, feeling that a sense of visual and even narrative continuity circumvented confusion amongst younger readers. The slickly versatile Jim Aparo was a perfect match for a drawing brief that encompassed DC’s entire DC pantheon and all of time, space and relative dimensions in any single season…

James N. Aparo (August 24, 1932 – July 19, 2005) was a true quiet giant of comicbooks. Self-taught, he grew up in New Britain, Connecticut, and after failing to join EC Comics whilst in his 20s, slipped easily into advertising, newspaper and fashion illustration. Even after finally becoming a comics artist he assiduously maintained his links with his first career.

For most of his career Aparo was a triple-threat, pencilling, inking and lettering his pages. In 1963 he began drawing Ralph Kanna’s newspaper strip Stern Wheeler, and three years added a wide range of features for go-getting visionary editor Dick Giordano at Charlton Comics. Aparo especially shone on the minor company’s licensed big gun The Phantom

When Giordano was lured away to National/DC in 1968 he brought his top stars (primarily Steve Ditko, Steve Skeates and Aparo) with him. Aparo began his lengthy, life-long association with DC, illustrating and reinvigorating moribund title Aquaman – although he continued with The Phantom until his duties increased by way of numerous short stories for the monolith’s burgeoning horror anthologies and revived 1950s supernatural hero The Phantom Stranger

Aparo went on to be an award-winning mainstay of DC’s artistic arsenal, with stellar runs on The Spectre, The Outsiders and Green Arrow, but his star was always inescapably linked to Batman’s…

Aparo and scripter Bob Haney continue their run of enticing all-action epics in this second sturdy hardback and/or eBook compilation, gathering B&B #123-136, 138-145, and 147-151 plus the lead stories from Detective Comics #437 & 438 (cumulatively spanning December 1975 through June 1979) in a fabulous celebration that opens sans preamble.

With this collection of Batman’s pairings with other luminaries of the DC universe we find a creative team that had gelled into a perfect machine producing top-notch yarns aimed at the general readership – which would often annoy and appal the dedicated fans and continuity-obsessed reader.

B&B #123 brought back and united Plastic Man and Metamorpho with the Darknight Detective in ‘How to Make a Super-Hero’ as well as featuring a rare incidence of a returning villain: ruthless tycoon Ruby Ryder, once again playing her seductive mind-games with the pliable, gullible Elastic Ace.

Always looking for a solid narrative hook, Haney spectacularly broke the fourth wall in ‘Small War of the Super Rifles’ when Batman and Sgt. Rock needed the assistance of artist Aparo and editor Murray Boltinoff to stop a gang of ruthless terrorists. This is another one that drove many fans batty…

‘Streets of Poison’ in #125 is a solid drug-smuggler yarn with exotic locales and a lovely hostage for Batman and the Flash to deal with, after which John Calnan stepped in to ink #126’s Aquaman team-up, solving the sinister mystery of ‘What Lurks Below Buoy 13?’

It was back to basics next when Wildcat returns to help quash a people-smuggling racket in the ‘Dead Man’s Quadrangle’ whilst #128’s ‘Death by the Ounce’ finds the Caped Crusader recruiting Mister Miracle and Big Barda to help him rescue a kidnapped Shah and save a global peace treaty.

Ever keen to push the envelope, the next yarn is actually a jam-packed 2-parter with #129’s ‘Claws of the Emperor Eagle’ pitting Batman, Green Arrow and the Atom against the Joker, Two-Face and a host of bandits in a manic race to possess a statue that had doomed every great conqueror in history. The epic, globe-trotting saga concluded with an ironic bang in ‘Death at Rainbow’s End’.

The last time Wonder Woman appeared (B&B #105) she was a merely mortal martial artist but in Brave and the Bold #131 she exults in all her super-powered glory to help Batman fight Catwoman and ‘Take 7 Steps to… Wipe-Out!’

When DC cautiously dipped its editorial toe in 1970s Martial Arts craze #132 found Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter joining ‘Batman… Dragon Slayer??’, as Denny O’Neil succeeded editor Boltinoff, resulting in a rather forced and silly tale of duelling fight stylists and purloined historical treasures.

Normal service resumes and Deadman steps in to deliver ‘Another Kind of Justice!’ to rum-runner Turk Bannion as his heir and murderer turns to a more modern form of smuggling before ‘Demolishment!’ (#134) sees Green Lantern defect to the soviets, a la The Manchurian Candidate with Batman’s hasty rescue attempt going badly awry…

In #135 the robotic Metal Men re-emerge to solve the mystery of a 19th century artificial intelligence in ‘More Than Human!’, but when Ruby Ryder is unmasked as behind the plot, it costs Bruce Wayne everything he owns and only the timely assistance of Green Arrow in concluding chapter ‘Legacy of the Doomed!’ is able to restore the status quo.

Mister Miracle is back in #138, tackling a ‘Mile High Tombstone!’ with Batman to save a missing geologist and thwart deranged escapologist Cosimo (and a killer computer), after which ‘Requiem for a Top Cop!’ sees Commissioner Jim Gordon targeted by alien bounty hunter Vorgan, forcing the Gotham Gangbuster to call in alien cop Hawkman

‘Dastardly Events Aboard the Hellship!’ in B&B #140 pits Wonder Woman and Batman against circus-obsessed billionaire super-spy Dimitrios, whilst Black Canary pops in to help quash the Joker’s byzantine extortion scheme in ‘Pay – Or Die!’

In #142, ‘Enigma of the Death-Ship!’ sees Aquaman and his wife Mera battle the Dark Knight to suppress a ghastly family secret, before the sordid trail leads to the most respected man in America and a confrontation with the Creeper in ‘Cast the First Stone’ (as Cary Burkett teams with Haney on script).

Haney solos on the magical mystery tale of ‘The Arrow of Eternity’ as Caped Crusader and Emerald Archer head back in time to Agincourt to foil a wicked plot by time-tamperer the Gargoyle after which the Phantom Stranger and Batman face ‘A Choice of Dooms!’ pursuing voodoo crimelord Kaluu

Supergirl enjoyed her first ever B&B Bat team-up (she had paired with Wonder Woman in #63, co-starring in the ferociously-dated and indefensible ‘Revolt of the Super-Chicks!’) in issue #147 where Burkett and Aparo’s ‘Death-Scream from the Sky!’ sees her and Batman save the world from extermination by satellite and a surprise super villain…

‘The Night the Mob Stole X-Mas!’ is a piece of seasonal fluff scripted by Haney and pencilled by Joe Staton with Aparo applying his overwhelming inks to a tale of cigarette smugglers and aging mafioso with the still-itinerant Plastic Man helping the provide a Christmas miracle.

The disbanded Teen Titans briefly reform in #149 for Haney’s ‘Look Homeward, Runaway!’, hunting a kid gang moving from petty crime to the big leagues after which ‘Today Gotham… Tomorrow the World!’ celebrates a landmark anniversary with an extended tale of Bruce Wayne’s abduction by terrorists and the undercover superhero who secretly shadows him. No hints here from me…

The brave, bold portion of our entertainment comes to a close with a rather era-specific yarn co-starring the Flash as #151 features a predatory haunt feeding off patrons at the ‘Disco of Death’.

This stunning compilation concludes with a brace of gripping thrillers from Archie Goodwin, after he took over the editor’s desk from Julie Schwartz in Detective Comics #437 (November 1973). He also wrote a stunning run of experimental yarns, beginning with ‘Deathmask’: a brilliant supernatural murder-mystery featuring an Aztec curse and seemingly unstoppable killer; all magnificently depicted by Jim Aparo. Following that, Detective #438 brought forth ‘A Monster Walk Wayne Manor’ wherein the abandoned stately pile (Batman having relocated to a bunker under the Wayne Foundation building) became home to a warped and dangerous old enemy…

By taking his cues from news headlines, popular films and proven genre-sources Bob Haney continually produced gripping adventures that thrilled and enticed with no need for more than a cursory nod to an ever-more-onerous continuity. Anybody could pick up an issue and be sucked into a world of wonder. Consequently, these tales are just as fresh and welcoming today, their themes and premises are just as immediate now as then and Jim Aparo’s magnificent art is still as compelling and engrossing as it always was. This is a Bat-book literally everybody can enjoy.

These are some of the best and most entertainingly varied yarns from a period of magnificent creativity in the American comics industry. Aimed at a general readership, gloriously free of heavy, cloying continuity baggage and brought to stirring, action-packed life by one of the greatest artists of the art form, this is a Batman for all seasons and reasons with the added bonus of some of the most fabulous and engaging co-stars a fan could imagine. How could anybody resist? Seriously: in this anniversary year, how can you…?
© 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 2013, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tiny Titans volume 3: Sidekickin’ it…


By Art Baltazar & Franco with (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2653-4 (TPB)

The links between animated features and comicbooks are long established and I suspect, for young consumers, indistinguishable. After all, it’s just entertainment in the end…

DC’s Cartoon Network imprint was arguably the last bastion of children’s comics in America and consolidated that link between TV and 2D fun and thrills with stunning interpretations of such television landmarks as Ben 10, Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and others.

The kids’ comics line also produced some truly exceptional material based on TV iterations of their proprietary characters such as Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: Brave and the Bold, Supergirl and Krypto the Super Dog as well as material like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! which was merely similar in tone and content.

Perhaps the imprint’s finest release – and one which has a created a sub-genre recreated at many different publishers – was a series ostensibly aimed at beginning readers but which quickly became a firm favourite of older fans …and a multi-award winner too.

Superbly mirroring the magical wonderland inside a child’s head where everything is happily mixed up together, Tiny Titans is a sublime antidote to continuity cops and slavish fan-boy quibbling (erm, uh… I think you’ll find that in…) by reducing the vast cast of the Teen Titans Go! animated series, the greater boutique of the mainstream comicbooks and (ultimately) the entire DC Universe to little kids and their parents/guardians in the wholesome kindergarten environment of Sidekick City Elementary School.

It’s a scenario spring-loaded with in-jokes, sight-gags and beloved yet gently mocked paraphernalia of generations of strip readers and screen-watchers….

Collecting issues #13-18 (spanning April to September 2009) of the magically madcap and infinitely addictive all-ages mini-masterpiece, this third volume begins on a petulant note with Pet Club at Wayne Manor.

Art Baltazar and co-creator Franco (Aureliani) have mastered a witty, bemusingly gentle manner of storytelling that just happily rolls along, with the assorted characters getting by and trying to make sense of the great big world, having “Adventures in Awesomeness”. The method generally involves stringing together smaller incidents and moments into an overall themed portmanteau tale and it works astoundingly well.

After a handy and as-standard identifying roll-call page, ‘Tough Cookie’ features Raven feeding the park critters but desperately striving to keep her hard-as-nails rep intact, after which bubble-headed Psimon goes to science club and gets caught in some uncool name-calling. The main event kicks off with the kids and their pets convening at Stately Wayne Manor and incurring the wrath of dapper, long-suffering manservant Alfred. The Penguins don’t help… no, wait, they actually do…

‘A Hot Spot’ then finds Raven and Kid Devil trading power sets with firestarter Hotspot and evoking the joys of being a Bird Scout, after which The Kroc Files shows ultimate butler Alfred and the roguish reptilian each demonstrating ‘How to Pick up the Dry Cleaning’, before the issue ends with a Tiny Titans Bubble Squares puzzle and a pinup of bird-themed champions Hawk, Dove and Raven.

Sea-themed issue #14 opens with a proudly shouted ‘Aw Yeah Titans!’ and class trip to Paradise Island. The boys just can’t understand why they have to stand on tables while the girls can run about freely wherever they like and play with the all the weird animals…

Back in Sidekick City, Cyborg’s vacuum cleaning invention runs amok while Beast Boy and infant Miss Martian stage a shapeshifting duel, even as on Paradise Island ‘Stay for Dinner’ sees Wonder Girl and the other Wonder Girl guests for lunch – as lunch – of Mrs. Cyclops.

Wrapping up affairs is another Kroc Files (‘How to Bake a Chocolate Cake’), a string of gags in Time for Jokes by the Riddler’s daughter Enigma plus a ‘Paradise Island Pet Club Pin-up!’

The next issue finds ‘Bunnies, Bunnies, Everywhere Bunnies’ and again opens at Wayne Manor, where Alfred has opted to stay home and watch the kids and their pets. Sadly, magician Zatara joins the fun and once more loses his magic wand to playful Beppo the Super Monkey. Cue rapid rabbit reproduction…

Elsewhere, Deathstroke’s daughter Rose lands her share of babysitting duties, and soon learns how to handle the Tiny Terror Titans before a ‘Tiny Titans Epilogue’ reveals a marvellous secret regarding one of those proliferating bunnies, before the issue concludes with more activity freebies: ‘Pet Club Mammal Travel’ and a bonus pin-up of Rose and those Tiny Terrors…

Issue #16 revisits a perennial puzzle of comics, specifically ‘Who’s the Fastest?!’ as Coach Lobo sets his heart on making the Sidekick Elementary kids ultra-fit. Part of the regimen includes a footrace around the entire world, and Supergirl, Inertia and Kid Flash all think they have it nailed…

Lesser-powered tykes find unique ways to cope with natural obstacles – such as the ocean – in ‘As the Race Continues…’ while the Coach takes a load off with coffee and comics and the Wonder Girls and Shelly trade costume tips. Down south, late starters Mas y Menos join the final dash to the finish where a non-starter surprisingly triumphs…

In the aftermath, shrinking-hero contingent The tiny Tiny Titans indulge in ‘One more Contest’ before an ‘Aw Yeah Pin-up’ of Supergirl and Kid Flash is preceded by a Tiny Titans Coin Race activity page.

‘Raven’s Book of Magic Spells’ starts as a play date but is bewilderingly disrupted when Trigon’s devilish daughter shows off her latest present in ‘Mixin’ it Up’: accidentally manifesting unlikely mystical heavyweight Mr. Mxyzptlk. And so, hilarity and impish insanity ensue…

Back in what passes for the land of reason, Robin, Beast Boy and Cyborg are tasked with recovering Batman’s cape and mask in ‘Battle for the Cow’ (if you read DC regularly, you know how painful a pun that is…).

Naturally, Starfire and Bumblebee have a sensible, pain-free solution to their woes, after which the Boy Wonder’s birthday party displays a fashion parade of alternative costumes in the presents giving portion of festivities…

Those tiny Titans go clothes hunting in ‘Shop Shrinking’ while Kid Flash, Robin and Cyborg ask ‘Hey, What’s Continuity?’ Wrapping up is another Kroc Files contrasting how butler Alfred and the lizardly lout cope with ‘Walking in the Rain’, topped off with Special Bonus Pin-up ‘The Return of the Bat-Cow!’

Concluding the juvenile japery is a fall from grace which can only be called ‘Infinite Detention’ as lunch lady Darkseid is demoted to Janitor for the Day and typically overreacts to boisterous behaviour in the hallways. With both good kids and bad suffering after-class incarceration, arguments ensue and the stern Monitor increase the tally for the slightest infraction. Soon the kids are facing days of detention…

Sadly for the Monitor, his nemesis Anti-Monitor has popped by with coffee and more stupid pranks…

One final Kroc Files reveals ‘How to go Bowling’ and Enigma offers another session of ‘Aw Yeah Joke Time!’ before the tome terminates with a selection of character sketches and studies repackaged as ‘Class Photos’.

Despite being ostensibly aimed at super-juniors and TV kids, these wonderful, wacky yarns – which marvellously marry the heart and spirit of such classic strips as Peanuts and The Perishers with something uniquely mired and marinated in pure comicbookery – are an unforgettable riot of laughs no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, entertaining, and wickedly intoxicating. What more do you need to know?
© 2009, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Superman volume 1


By Otto Binder, Jerry Coleman, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, Robert Bernstein, Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Dick Sprang, Kurt Schaffenberger & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0758-8

Although we all think of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s iconic creation as the epitome of comicbook creation, the truth is that very soon after his launch in Action Comics #1 he became a multimedia star and far more people have seen or heard the Man of Steel than have ever read him – and yes, that does include the globally syndicated newspaper strip.

By the time his 20th anniversary rolled around he had become a mainstay of radio, starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons – plus two movies – and just ended his first smash live-action television serial.

In his future were many more (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville, Krypton et al), a stage musical, a franchise of stellar movies and an almost seamless succession of TV cartoons beginning with The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 and continuing ever since. Even Krypto got in on the small-screen act…

It’s no wonder then that the tales from this Silver Age period should be so draped in the wholesome trappings of Tinseltown – even more so than most of celebrity-obsessed America. It didn’t hurt that editor Whitney Ellsworth was a part-time screenwriter, script editor and producer as well as National DC’s Hollywood point man.

However, that’s not all there is to these gloriously engaging super-sagas culled from Action Comics #241-257 and Superman #122-133, reliving the period June 1958 to November 1959 in crisp, clean black and white in this first economical Showcase Presents collection.

I’d love to plug more modern, full-colour archival editions here, but for some reason DC’s powers-that-be have been woefully slow in gathering this material – and the equally superb all-ages Superboy stuff. I’m not getting any younger but I still eagerly wait in hope – and so should you…

In the meantime, then…

By the mid-1950s The Man of Tomorrow had settled into an ordered existence. Nothing could really hurt him, nothing would ever change, and thrills seemed in short supply. With the TV show cementing the action, writers increasingly concentrated on supplying wonder, intrigue, imagination and, whenever possible, some laughs as well.

The adventure begins here with the lead tale from Action Comics #241 and ‘The Key to Fort Superman’: a fascinating, clever puzzle-play guest-featuring Batman, written by Jerry Coleman and illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, wherein an impossible intruder vexes the Man of Steel in his most sacrosanct sanctuary, after which Superman #122 (July, 1958) proffers 3 yarns by veteran scripter Otto Binder, beginning with ‘The Secret of the Space Souvenirs’ (illustrated by Al Plastino) as temporary madness seems to grip the Man of Steel while he gathers artefacts for a proposed time-capsule. ‘Superman in the White House’ is a fanciful dream by Jimmy Olsen also drawn by Plastino whilst the closing Boring/Kaye bamboozler finds the hero investigating an outbreak of super-powers at a US military base in ‘The Super-Sergeant’

That same month Binder & Plastino introduce both the greatest new villain and most expansive new character concept the series had seen in years with The Super-Duel in Space’ Action Comics #242) wherein an evil alien scientist named Brainiac tries to add Metropolis to his collection of miniaturised cities in bottles.

As well as a titanic tussle in its own right, this tale completely changed the mythology of the Man of Steel, by introducing Kandor, a city full of Kryptonians who had escaped the planet’s destruction when Brainiac abducted them. Although Superman rescues his fellow survivors, the villain escapes to strike again, and it would be years before the hero could restore the Kandorians to their true size.

Superman #123 (August 1958) featured ‘The Girl of Steel’ by Binder, Dick Sprang & Kaye which tested the potential of a distaff Supergirl as part of a 3-chapter yarn involving a magic wishing totem, which tragically segued into ‘The Lost Super-Powers’ before granting the hero’s greatest dream and facilitating ‘Superman’s Return to Krypton’.

Action #243 (Binder & Boring) sees Superman mysteriously transformed into a beast in ‘The Lady and the Lion’, after which Superman #124 provides the intriguing menace of ‘The Super-Sword’ by Coleman & Plastino, Binder & Kurt Schaffenberger’s delightful desert island drama wherein Lois Lane becomes ‘Mrs. Superman’ and Clark Kent’s investigation of construction industry corruption which compels him to become ‘The Steeplejack of Steel’ (Binder, Boring & Kaye).

Curt Swan pencilled Binder’s ‘Super-Merman of the Sea’ (inked by Kaye) in Action #244: a canny mystery wherein the Man of Steel abandons the surface world for an alien aquatic princess, before Boring & Kaye delineate Binder’s compelling thriller ‘The Shrinking Superman!’: featuring an insidious menace from the Bottle City of Kandor…

‘Lois Lane’s Super-Dream’ (Coleman & Schaffenberger) led in Superman #125 (October/November 1958) with another potentially offensive and certainly sexist parable wherein the plucky news-hen learns a salutary lesson about powers and responsibility, whilst ‘Clark Kent’s College Days’ (illustrated by Plastino) opened an occasional series of Untold Tales of Superman: revealing just how, when and why Superboy became the Man of Tomorrow, before Boring & Kaye conclude Coleman’s hat-trick with ‘Superman’s New Power’ as the hero gained new and incomprehensible abilities with catastrophic consequences…

Action #246 featured ‘Krypton on Earth!’ (Binder, Boring & Kaye) as a trip to tourist attraction “Krypton Island” reveals a crafty criminal scam, and #247 presented ‘Superman’s Lost Parents!’ (Binder & Plastino), wherein a criminal scheme to reveal the hero’s secret identity prompts an extreme face-saving solution. Superman #126 had Binder, Boring & Kaye reveal ‘Superman’s Hunt for Clark Kent’: a thrilling tale of amnesia and deduction whilst ‘The Spell of the Shandu Clock’ (Coleman, Boring & Kaye), provides spooky chills and clever ploys to outwit a malevolent mastermind and ‘The Two Faces of Superman’ (Coleman & Schaffenberger) again saw “conniving” Lois learn an – apparently – much-needed lesson in humility.

Action #248 (January 1959) was a rare contribution from Bill Finger, illustrated by Boring & Kaye wherein the Caped Kryptonian becomes ‘The Man No Prison Could Hold!’ to topple a war criminal tyrant, before Superman #127 opened with another Untold Tale of Superman, ‘When There Was No Clark Kent!’ (Coleman, Swan & Kaye) as an accident temporarily deprives the hero of his treasured alter ego, after which Coleman, Boring & Kaye expose ‘The Make-Believe Superman’ as a depressed dad tries to impress his son with a most preposterous fib. The issue closed with the debut of another hugely popular character in ‘Titano the Super-Ape!’. The chimpanzee who is transformed into a giant ape with Kryptonite vision was one of the most memorable “foes” of the period, courtesy of Binder, Boring & Kaye’s sublime treatment combining action, pathos and drama to superb effect.

‘The Kryptonite Man!’, by Binder & Plastino in Action #249, sees Lex Luthor deliberately irradiate himself with Green K to avoid capture, but his evil genius proves no match for our hero’s sharp wits, used with equal aplomb in ‘The Eye of Metropolis!’ (Finger & Boring) as a prominent TV journalist seeks to expose Superman’s secret identity in #250.

Finger scripted the entirety of #128 as ‘Superman versus the Futuremen’ (limned by Boring & Kaye) and ‘The Secret of the Futuremen’ finds the Metropolis Marvel framed for heinous crimes and hijacked to the impossible year of 2000AD, before outwitting his abductors and returning in time to encounter ‘The Sleeping Beauty from Krypton!’ – actually Lois in another hare-brained scheme to trap her beloved into marriage, and deliciously illustrated by the unmistakable and fiendishly whimsical Kurt Schaffenberger.

‘The Oldest Man in Metropolis!’ – Robert Bernstein & Plastino – reveals how an unfortunate lab accident ages Superman many decades overnight in Action#251, whilst Superman #129 (May 1959) reveals ‘The Ghost of Lois Lane’ (Coleman, Boring & Kaye) to be anything but before Binder & Plastino’s ‘Clark Kent, Fireman of Steel!’ depicts the reporter’s aggravating and hilarious “luck” as a temporary fire-fighter. Another major debut follows before introducing the bewitching mermaid Lori Lemaris in ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ – a moving Untold Tale of Superman (from Finger & Boring) which again refined the Man of Steel’s intriguing early life.

From the same month, Action Comics #252 would have been significant enough merely for introducing the threat of John Corben, a criminal whose crushed skeleton is replaced by a robot body and Kryptonite heart to become ‘The Menace of Metallo!’ (Bernstein & Plastino), but a new back-up strip also began in that issue which utterly revolutionised the Man of Tomorrow’s ongoing mythology.

‘The Supergirl from Krypton!’ introduced Kal-El’s cousin Kara Zor-El in another captivating, groundbreaking yarn by Binder & Plastino. The Maid of Might would occupy the rear of Action and alternate covers for a decade and more to come, carving her own unique legend…

Issue #253 featured ‘The War Between Superman and Jimmy Olsen!’ by Alvin Schwartz, Swan & Kaye as an alien presence gives the boy reporter super-powers and a mania to conquer the world whilst Superman #130 presented ‘The Curse of Kryptonite!’ (Binder & Plastino), wherein the Action Ace relives his past experiences with the lethal mineral; ‘The Super-Servant of Crime!’ (Bernstein, Swan & John Sikela) which finds the hero turning the tables on a petty crook who thinks he’s fooled the Man of Tomorrow, and ‘The Town That Hated Superman!’ (Binder, Boring & Kaye) which happy hamlet has outlawed the hero. He simply has to know why…

‘The Battle with Bizarro!’(Action #254, by Binder & Plastino) re-introduces an imperfect duplicate super-being who had initially appeared in a well-received Superboy story (#68, from the previous year), courtesy of Luthor’s malfunctioning duplicator ray.

Even way back then high sales trumped death and so popular was the fatally-flawed character that the tale was continued over two issues, concluding with ‘The Bride of Bizarro!’ in #255 – an almost unheard-of luxury back then. Here that bombastic, traumatic conclusion is separated by the contents of Superman #131, which firstly reintroduces a long-vanished pestiferous annoyance with ‘The Menace of Mr. Mxyzptlk!’ by Coleman & Plastino, before Lois Lane is granted a tantalising glimpse of ‘Superman’s Future Wife’ (Bernstein & Schaffenberger) and ‘The Unknown Super-Deeds’ reveals hitherto hidden connections with the Daily Planet staff long before Superboy left Smallville in another Untold Tale… from Binder & Plastino.

Action #256 seemingly unleashes ‘The Superman of the Future’ (Binder, Swan & Kaye) whilst in Superman #132 (October 1959) Batman and the projections of a super-computer show what might have happened had Superman grown up on an unexploded Krypton in the 3-chapter epic ‘Superman’s Other Life’, ‘Futuro, Super-Hero of Krypton!’ and ‘The Superman of Two Worlds!’ by Binder, Boring & Kaye.

Action #257 reveals Clark Kent as ‘The Reporter of Steel!’ after he is hit by a ray from mad scientist Luthor in a cunning yarn by Binder, Boring & Kaye, before the contents of Superman #133 brings to a close this potent premier compendium with ‘The Super-Luck of Badge 77’ (Binder & Plastino) with the reporter trying his hand as a beat cop, before we can enjoy the first new tales by co-creator Jerry Siegel in nearly a decade: ‘How Perry White Hired Clark Kent’ (art by Plastino) and the wryly light-hearted ‘Superman Joins the Army!’ illustrated by Boring & Kaye.

Superman has proven to be all things to all fans over his decades of existence and with the character seemingly undergoing almost constant radical overhaul nowadays, these timeless tales of charm and joy and wholesome wit are more necessary than ever: not just as a reminder of great memories past but also as an all-ages primer of wonders still to come…
© 1959-1963, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Wonder Woman: The Golden Age Volume Two


By William Moulton Marston & Harry G. Peter with Frank Godwin, Frank Harry & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8536-4 (TPB)

Wonder Woman was conceived by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in an attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model. She debuted as a special feature in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), before springing into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. An instant hit, the Amazing Amazon quickly won her own eponymous supplemental title in late Spring of that year (cover-dated Summer 1942).

Once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, American aviator Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence crashed to Earth. Near death, he was nursed back to health by young and impressionable Princess Diana.

Fearing her growing obsession with the creature from a long-forgotten and madly violent world, her mother Queen Hippolyte revealed the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they isolated themselves from the rest of the world and devoted their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However, when goddesses Athena and Aphrodite subsequently instructed Hippolyte to send an Amazon back with the American to fight for global freedom and liberty, Diana overcame all other candidates and became their emissary – Wonder Woman.

On arriving in America, she purchased the identity and credentials of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazon to be close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick medic to join her own fiancé in South America. Soon Diana also gained a position with Army Intelligence as secretary to General Darnell, ensuring she would always be able to watch over her beloved. She little suspected that, although the painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling Amazon superwoman, the General had fallen for the mousy but superbly competent Lieutenant Prince…

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston (with some help in later years from assistant Joye Murchison) scripted almost all of the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous adventures until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. Venerable veteran illustrator and co-creator H.G. Peter performed the same feat, limning practically every titanic tale until his own death in 1958. A couple of the very rare exceptions appear in this volume…

Spanning March to December 1943 this superb full-colour deluxe softcover compilation (also available as an eBook edition) collects her exploits from Sensation Comics #15-24, Wonder Woman #4-7 plus her adventures from anthological book of (All) Stars Comics Cavalcade #2-5…

In Sensation #15 ‘Victory at Sea’ pits Diana and Steve against murderous saboteurs set on halting military production and working with shady lawyers, whilst in #16 ‘The Masked Menace’ is one of very few stories not illustrated by H.G. Peter but the work of illustrator and strip cartoonist Frank Godwin, stepping in as the crushing workload of an extra 64-page comicbook every couple of months piled the pressure on WW’s artistic director.

The tale sees steadfast Texan Etta Candy ready to elope with slick and sleazy Euro-trash Prince Goulash, until Diana and Steve crash the wedding party to expose spies infiltrating across the Mexican border and a plot to blow up the invaluable Candy family oil-wells…

The inescapable war-fervour was tinged with incredible fantasy in Wonder Woman #4 which opened with ‘Man-Hating Madness!’, wherein a Chinese refugee from a Japanese torture camp reaches America and draws the Amazon into a terrifying scheme to use biological weapons on the American Home Front.

Cruel and misogynistic ‘Mole Men of the Underworld’ then kidnap collegiate sidekicks the Holliday Girls and Diana and reformed and recuperated former-Nazi genius Baroness Paula von Gunther rescue them, free a race of female slaves and secure America’s deepest border from further attack.

‘The Rubber Barons’ provide a rousing romp wherein greedy corporate profiteers attempt to hold the Government and war effort to ransom with a new manufacturing process in a high-tech tale involving mind-control, gender role-reversal and behaviour modification, as only a trained and passionate psychologist could promote them…

The issue concludes with an untitled saga as Paula, now fully accepted into Amazon society, is attacked by Mavis, one of her erstwhile spy-slaves. The traumatised victim then abducts her ex-mistress’ daughter little Gerta and Wonder Woman, burdened with responsibility, is compelled to hunt her down…

A famed classic from Sensation #17 follows ‘Riddle of the Talking Lion’ (also probably drawn by Godwin) wherein Diana Prince visits an ailing friend and discovers that Sally’s kids have overheard a Zoo lion speaking – and revealing strange secrets…

Although Steve and Diana dismiss the tall tale, things take a peculiar turn when the beast is stolen. The trail leads to Egypt and a plot by ambitious Nazi collaborator Princess Yasmini

At this time National/DC was in an editorially-independent business relationship with Max Gaines that involved shared and cross promotion and distribution for the comicbooks released by his own outfit All-American Publications.

Although technically competitors if not rivals, the deal included shared logos and advertising and even combining both companies’ top characters in the groundbreaking All Star Comics as the Justice Society of America.

However, by 1942 relations between the companies were breaking down – and would culminate in 1946 with DC buying out Gaines, who used the money to start EC Comics.

All-American thus decided to create its own analogue to mammoth sized anthology World’s Finest, featuring top AA characters. The outsized result was Comics Cavalcade

Next up following a Frank Harry cover of AA Big Three Flash, Green Lantern and our Princess, is Wonder Woman’s first offering from the second issue of that epic title: ‘Wanted by Hitler, Dead or Alive’ (Godwin art), pitting her against devious gestapo agent Fausta Grables

Also illustrated by superbly gifted classical artist Frank Godwin, ‘The Secret City of the Incas’ from Sensation #18 sees Diana rescue a lost Inca tribe from a despotic theocracy and ancient greed.

  1. G. Peter drew the vast entirety of Wonder Woman #5 (June/July 1943), presenting an interlinked epic in the ‘Battle for Womanhood’. Here war-god Mars (who instigated the World War from his HQ on the distant red planet through his earthly pawns Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito) returns to plague humanity directly. This time he enlists the aid of a brilliant but deformed and demented woman-hating psychologist with psychic powers. Tormented Dr. Psycho uses his talents to marry and dominate a medium named Marva, and employs her abilities to form ectoplasmic bodies as he seeks to enslave every woman on Earth.

Happily, Wonder Woman counters his divinely-sponsored schemes, after which prominent sidekicks ‘Etta Candy and her Holliday Girls’ comedically crush a burglary before ‘Mars Invades the Moon’ resumes the overarching tale as the frustrated war-god is ousted by devious deputy the Duke of Deception.

In attempting to take over the Moon – home of peace-loving goddess Diana – Mars makes the biggest error of his eternal life as the Amazing Amazon spearheads a spectacular rescue mission which results in the invaders’ utter rout.

The issue then concludes with ‘The Return of Dr. Psycho’, who escapes prison and again perpetrates a series of ghastly attacks on America’s security and the freedom of women everywhere… until the Holliday Girls and their demi-divine mentor stepped in…

Sensation #19 (Godwin again) features ‘The Unbound Amazon’ who responds to a little boy’s letter and stumbles onto big trouble in the far north woods. Of course, Diana knows little Bobby (as seen in the Adventure of the Talking Lion), and with Nazi spy Mavis on the loose, isn’t about to take any chances.

This terrific thriller is notable for the revelation that if an Amazon removes her Bracelets of Submission she turns into a raving, uncontrolled engine of sheer destruction…

Issue #20 was by H.G. Peter – who was coming to grips with the increased extra workload of the explosively popular 64-page Wonder Woman series every 3 months – and ‘The Girl with the Gun’ sees Diana Prince investigating sabotage at a munitions factory and the murder of a General at WAACs training base Camp Doe. To the Amazon’s complete surprise, the culprit seems to be Marva Psycho, but there is far more going on than at first appears…

In Comics Cavalcade #3, Diana exposes and destroys ‘The Invisible Invader’ devastating American men and munitions…

Godwin again handled the art for Sensation Comics #21 as Steve and Diana track down insidious traitor “the American Adolf” as he conducts a murderous ‘War Against Society’, whilst Wonder Woman #6 – another all-Peter extravaganza – introduces another macabrely memorable foe in ‘Wonder Woman and the Cheetah’.

Marston’s psychiatric background provided yet another deeply disturbed antagonist in the form of sugar sweet debutante Priscilla Rich who shared her own body with a jealously narcissistic, savage feline counterpart dedicated to murder and robbery. The Cheetah frames the Amazing Amazon and almost destroys Steve, Etta and the Holliday girls before Wonder Woman finally quashes her wild rampages.

It wasn’t for long: the Cheetah immediately returns to mastermind an espionage-for-profit ring in ‘The Adventure of the Beauty Club’, resulting in the Perfect Princess being captured by Japan’s High Command before spectacularly busting loose for a final confrontation in ‘The Conquest of Paradise’. Here the Feline Fury infiltrates the home of the Amazons and almost irretrievably poisons the minds of the super women sequestered there…

By this time Peter was fully adapted to his new schedule and in Sensation Comics #22 takes the psychological dramas to new heights as a cured Priscilla Rich is seemingly attacked by her manifested evil self after the Cheetah steals America’s latest weapon ‘The Secret Submarine’

In issue #23 the creators tackle school bullying and women in the workplace as production line staff are increasingly stricken by ‘War Laugh Mania’. Only one of the problems is being promulgated by Nazi spies though…

Comics Cavalcade #4 (Fall 1943) sees Wonder Woman and the Holliday Girls capture Nazi superspy Bertha Nagle and return ‘The Purloined Pressure Coordinator’ before a resumption of straight action in Sensation #24 where ‘The Adventure of the Pilotless Plane’ sees Steve abducted by Japanese agents whilst investigating a new gas weapon which prevents US aircraft from flying. The vile villains have nothing that can stop Wonder Woman from smashing them and freeing him, however, and the status quo is fully restored by the time Wonder Woman #7 offers an optimistic view of the future in a fantastic fantasy tale…

‘The Adventure of the Life Vitamin’ depicts America in the year 3000AD: a utopian paradise ruled by a very familiar female President, where a miracle supplement has expanded longevity to such an extent that Steve, Etta and all Diana’s friends were still thriving.

Sadly, some old throwbacks still yearn for the days when women were second-class citizens subservient to males, meaning there is still work for the Amazing Amazon to do…

‘America’s Wonderland of Tomorrow’ continues the wry but wholesome sex war with Steve going undercover with the rebel forces: uncovering a startling threat in ‘The Secret Weapon’ before the focus returns to the present and a far more intimate crisis for wilful child Gerta whose mother Paula is forced to deal with a ‘Demon of the Depths’. But is that the evil octopus at the bottom of the paddling pool or her daughter’s dangerously anti-authoritarian attitudes…?

Closing out this epic compilation is one last tale from Comics Cavalcade (#5 Winter 1943) as the Amazon Avenger investigates the ‘Mystery of the Crimson Flame’ exposing a cruel cult of subjugation and terrorism led by conniving man-hating High Priestess Zara

Too few people seem able to move beyond the supposed subtexts and incontrovertible imagery of bondage and subjugation in Marston’s tales – and frankly there really are a lot of scenes with girls tied up, chained or about to be whipped (men too) – but I just don’t care what his intentions might have been.

I’m more impressed with the skilful drama and incredible imaginative story-elements that are always wonderfully, intriguingly present: I mean, just where do such concepts as giant battle kangaroo steeds or sentient Christmas trees stem from…?

Exotic, baroque, beguiling and uniquely exciting, these Golden Age adventures of the World’s Most Famous female superhero are timeless and pivotal classics in the development of comics books and still provide lashings of fun and thrills for anyone looking for a great nostalgic read.
© 1943, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman, Batman vs. The Penguin, Batman vs. The Joker


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Alvin Schwartz, Edmond Hamilton, David Vern Reed, Bill Woolfolk, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz & various (Four Square/New English Library)
ISBNs: 1688, 1692 and 1694

The Silver Age of comicbooks utterly revolutionised the medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning genre of masked mystery men. However, for quite some time the changes instigated by Julius Schwartz in Showcase #4 (October 1956) which rippled out in the last three years of the decade to affect all of National/DC Comics’ superhero characters generally passed by Batman and Robin.

Fans buying Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest Comics and even Justice League of America would read adventures that in look and tone were largely unchanged from the safely anodyne fantasies that had turned the Dark Knight into a mystery-solving, alien-fighting costumed Boy Scout just as the 1940s turned into the1950s.

By the end of 1963, Schwartz having – either personally or by example – revived and revitalised much of DC’s line and the entire industry with his modernization of the Superhero, was asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders.

Bringing his usual team of top-notch creators with him, the Editor stripped down the core-concept, downplaying all the ETs, outlandish villains and daft transformation tales, bringing a cool modern take to the capture of criminals whilst overseeing a streamlining rationalisation of the art style itself. The most apparent change to us kids was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol but, far more importantly, the stories also changed. A subtle aura of genuine menace had crept back in.

At the same time, Hollywood was preparing to produce a television series based on Batman and, through the sheer karmic insanity that permeates the universe, the producers were basing their interpretation upon the addictively daft material that the publishers were turning their Editorial backs on and not the “New Look Batman” that was enthralling the readers.

The TV show premiered on January 12th 1966 and ran for 3 seasons (120 episodes in total), airing twice weekly for its first two seasons. It was a monumental, world-wide hit and sparked a wave of trendy imitation. The resulting media hysteria and fan frenzy generated an insane amount of Bat-awareness, no end of spin-offs and merchandise – including a movie – and introduced us all to the phenomenon of overkill.

“Batmania” exploded across the world and then, as almost as quickly, became toxic and vanished.

To this day, no matter how much we might squeal and foam about it, or what has occurred since in terms of comics, games or movies, to a huge portion of this planet’s population Batman is always going to be that “Zap! Biff! Pow!” costumed buffoon…

To tap into the frenzy, American book publisher Signet/New American Library – a company well-used to producing media tie-in titles such as Girl from U.N.C.L.E. or novelisations like Breakfast at Tiffany’s – released 5 paperbacks starring Batman and Robin, beginning in March 1966.

Technically, it was 4 plus a prose adaptation of the movie that was released later in the year (and the second was in fact an all-new prose novel by Winston Lyon – AKA William Woolfolk – which I’ll be covering in a later review), so in the proper fashion of the times, British counterparts quickly followed.

This terrific little trio of monochrome paperback pocket books – spearhead of National Periodical Publications’ on-going efforts to reach wider reading audiences – were published in 1966 to accompany the launch of the Batman TV show, and fully fuelled the “Camp” superhero craze which saw Masked Manhunters and costumed crazies sneak into every aspect of popular entertainment.

Each breathtaking tome contains 5 reformatted stories of the Dynamic Duo, culled from the archives and crafted by some of the greatest scripters and illustrators the industry has ever seen. Collected here in incontrovertible black-&-white are the tales from this trio of cartoon books which blew my unformed little mind in that most auspicious year for fun and fantasy escapism…

The first UK release was Batman which featured primarily crime stories rather than the baroque super-villain fare that informed and monopolised the television iteration. In the aforementioned mid-1950s, fancy-dress felons had all but vanished from view, and the new Schwartz Batman also eschewed costumed crazies … at least until the TV show made them stars in their own right.

The reformatted mini-masterpieces start with the positively eerie 1940 origin tale ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff from Batman #1 (Spring 1940). This piece was actually recycled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34 (1939) but still offers in 13 perfect panels what is effectively the best ever origin of the character.

The drama continued with ‘The Web of Doom’ (from Batman #90, March 1955, by Bill Finger, Moldoff & Charles Paris), in which a biologist loses a package of deadly germ phials somewhere in Gotham City. Batman and Robin have only days to track down 3 criminals who hold the key to restoring the savant’s shattered memories and retrieving the deadly parcel…

Batman #92, from June 1955, provided ‘Fan-Mail of Danger!’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris) as letters to the gracious heroes pile up and the lads hired a secretary to handle the load. Sadly, Susie Smith’s over-eager diligence almost exposes Batman’s secret identity to a cunning counterfeiter…

There was one exception in this collection to the “no loons” rule. The Joker tale ‘The Crazy Crime Clown!’ is something extra-special from Batman #74 (December 1952/January 1953, by Alvin Schwartz, Dick Sprang & Charles Paris) and sees the exotic but strictly larcenous Harlequin of Hate apparently go bonkers.

He is committed to the Gotham Institute for the Insane but, naturally, there’s method in the seeming madness which Batman only discovers after he too infiltrates the worthy asylum in disguise…

Cunning criminal mastermind Mr. Blank almost takes over the underworld by destroying a new super-computer in ‘The Crime Predictor!’ (Batman #77, June/July 1953, courtesy of Edmond Hamilton, Bob, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Paris), and it took all of the ingenuity of the World’s Greatest Detective to unravel the deadly mire of duplicity and prevent his own infallibly predicted demise…

‘The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints!’ (Batman #82, March 1954 by David Vern Reed, Sprang & Paris) is another clever scheme by brilliant killers who think to outwit the Caped Crusaders, before this initial volume closes with a thrilling suspense shocker in ‘The Testing of Batman!’ (Batman #83, April 1954) by Hamilton, Sprang & Paris.

Here a scientist’s exercise research is usurped by thugs who wanted to have fun killing the enemies of crime. At least that’s what they told the captive Gotham Gangbusters…

 

Six months later a second volume was released.

Batman vs. The Penguin followed the same beguiling format but, with flamboyant arch-foes predominating on the silver screen, the emphasis had shifted. As the title clearly shows, this compilation concentrated on cases featuring the Felonious Fowl and Bird of Ill Omen, but it also harboured a secret surprise…

The all-ages action and excitement kicked off with ‘The Parasols of Plunder’ (Batman #70 April/May 1952 by Bill Woolfolk, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) and details how, after being released from prison, The Penguin gives up his obsession with birds and starts selling umbrellas. But, oh… what deadly umbrellas…

He returned to ornithology for ‘The Golden Eggs!’ in Batman #99 (April 1956, Finger, Moldoff & Paris), as whilst on the run his hobby inspired a deadly retaliatory crime wave before Batman scrambled all his plans, whilst in ‘The Penguin’s Fabulous Fowls’ the Umbrella King turns crypto-biologist, capturing mythical avian monsters and turning them loose to devastate Gotham in a sharp suspense shocker from Batman #76 (April/May 1953 by Hamilton, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris)…

His last appearance was in ‘The Return of the Penguin’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #155 May 1963) which sees the Bird Bandit coming out of retirement to match wits with Batman again. If only the Pompous Peacock had ignored the teasing of the other crooks when they called him a “has-been”…

This tome wraps up with a classic Catwoman yarn, as the Feline Temptress puts all the contestants of Gotham City’s “Queen for a Day” gala into catatonic trances. Moreover, suspiciously still-awake competitor Selina Kyle claims complete innocence and insists some other Catwoman was responsible for creating the ‘The Sleeping Beauties of Gotham City!’ in a taut mystery by Reed, Moldoff & Stan Kaye from Batman #84 (June 1954)…

 

Batman vs. The Joker followed a month later with a full quintet of comicbook curios starring Batman’s ultimate nemesis. The madcap mayhem began with ‘The Challenge of The Joker’ (Batman #136, December 1960 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris) in which the Clown Prince of Crime determines to prove to the world that modern police science is no match for cunning and the 4 ancient elements…

Then ‘The Joker’s Winning Team!’ (Batman #86, September 1954 Woolfolk, Moldoff & Kaye) reveals how the baseball-inspired brigand assembles a squad of crime specialist pinch-hitters to ensure he never loses a match against the Gotham Gangbuster, after which the gloriously engaging saga of ‘The Joker’s Millions!’ (Detective Comics #180, February, 1952 by Reed, Sprang & Paris) discloses how the villain’s crime rival takes deathbed revenge by leaving the Harlequin of Hate too rich to commit capers.

It is a double-barrelled scheme though and makes the Joker twice a fool, as the Caped Crusaders find to their great amusement…

‘The Joker’s Journal’ (Detective #193, March 1953 from Reed, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) follows the theme after the penniless Punchinello leaves prison and starts a newspaper. Everyone in Gotham knows it was only a matter of time until the Mountebank of Mirth returns to his old tricks, and this final volume concludes in the only way possible as the eternal archenemies’ minds are swapped in a scientific accident. Soon a law-abiding Joker and baffled Robin have to hunt down ‘Batman – Clown of Crime!’: a rousing romp by Reed, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #85, August 1954.

As I’ve constantly averred, the comics tales themselves are always special but somehow when they appeared in proper books it always made those fantastic adventure dreams a little more substantial; and perhaps even real…

Batman has proven to be all things to all fans over his decades of existence and, with the character undergoing almost perpetual overhaul these days, the peerless parables of wit and bravery encapsulated here are more welcome than ever: not just as memorial to what has been but also as a reminder that once upon a time everybody could read the fabulous Tales of Gotham City…

These books are probably impossible to find today – even though entirely worth the effort – but completists can achieve miracles if they put their minds to it and frankly, whatever format or collection you happen upon, in this anniversary year, such forgotten stories of the immortal Dark(ish) Knight are part of our cultural comics heritage and must always be treasured.
© 1940, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1963, 1966 National Periodical Publications. All rights reserved.